‘A catalyst for a movement’: Hundreds don ribbon skirts after Sask. girl shamed for wearing hers

A 10-year-old Saskatchewan girl’s life has been brightened by the colourful ribbon skirts of women across the globe after she was shamed for wearing her own.

Isabella Kulak, a member of Cote First Nation in eastern Saskatchewan, decided to wear her ribbon skirt to her school in Kamsack for a “formal day” in December.

“It’s black with lots of white flowers and a blue, green and black ribbon on it. I like that my auntie Farrah made it for me and it fits me really well,” Kulak said Monday in an interview with CBC News.

The traditional Indigenous clothing that Isabella and her sister wore represents strength, womanhood and identity, but her pride was stripped from her when an educational assistant compared her clothing to that of another girl.

Chris Kulak, Isabella’s father, says he could tell something was wrong when his daughter got home from school.

He says the educational assistant told the Grade 5 student that her mismatched skirt and shirt weren’t fit for formal day. The assistant said Isabella should have worn an outfit similar to that of another student, who was wearing a store-bought dress.

Chris Kulak with his wife, Lana, and six of their daughters.(Judy Pelly/Facebook)

“We found that very offensive, especially with the culture that’s intertwined with the ribbon skirt and the sacredness behind it for Native women and for many women who participate in the skirt making and identify that as part of their heritage,” Chris Kulak said Tuesday in an interview with CBC Radio’s The Morning Edition.

“She was shamed for her traditional wear.”

Ribbon skirt support

Details of the incident, which has been confirmed by a Good Spirit School Division investigation, were posted on Facebook by Isabella’s aunt.

For weeks now, people have been sharing photos and videos featuring them wearing their own ribbon skirts or shirts to show their support for Isabella.

“She was a catalyst for a movement that had been waiting to come to the surface for a long time,” said Chris. “We are overwhelmed with the positivity on Facebook.”

After details of the incident were posted on Facebook, people began sharing their own ribbon skirt photos. Here, Jin Shirt and Melodie Henry from Calgary stand in their ribbon skirts.(Jin Shirt/Facebook)

Photos have been sent from all over the globe.

Chris, who doesn’t use Facebook himself, said the reaction online has turned the negative experience into a positive one for the Kulak family.

“I want to say thank you to all those people for their positive messages. That’s how we help each other heal, is through positivity,” he said.

Cherie Snow from Virginia Beach, Va., wears her ribbon skirt in support of Isabella.(Cherie Snow/Facebook)

A retired RCMP officer from Germany who once worked in Kamsack sent Isabella $100 after hearing her story, wishing her a merry Christmas. Even actor Nathaniel Arcand gave a shout-out.

“An actor from the … [TV show] my dad likes, North of 60, he said a couple things to me, that they’re proud of me,” said Isabella. “It’s really cool to have an actor do that.”

A group poses in their skirts in Pukatawagan, Man.(Suntana Alcorn/Facebook)

March to school

On Monday, the first day back to school after the holidays, a march was held to walk Isabella to school, culminating in a ceremony.

Women wore their ribbon skirts, men wore their ribbon shirts, a drum group performed, and chiefs from surrounding First Nations attended.

Ribbon skirt maker Eunice Ketchemonia-Cote, left, her daughter Heather Ketchemonia, second from left, and her mother, Stella Ketchemonia, right, stand in front of the Kamsack school with Isabella Kulak at Monday’s walk.(Submitted by Eunice Ketchemonia-Cote)

The Good Spirit School Division said the comment was problematic, apologized to the family and met with Chief of Cote First Nation George Peter Cote.

“Chief George, the education council from Cote First Nation and the young lady’s family have been most gracious, understanding that a mistake was made, offering support, offering advice and forgiveness,” said Quintin Robertson, director of education and CEO of the Good Spirit School Division.

“And I don’t want to squander that. I don’t want to take that for granted.”

Robertson said the division wants to do better in terms of reconciliation.

Powerful symbol

As for Isabella, she said she was happy to see her cousins, kokums and friends come to support her.

Chris said Isabella is learning Saulteaux and has enjoyed learning how to say “sister” or “little one” in different languages, and writes each pronunciation down in a book.

“It’s been a little bit of a roller-coaster for her. She’s a quiet little girl that likes to learn and likes to play with her friends, and she realizes that she has a powerful voice even though she doesn’t feel so big and mighty,” said Chris.

“I told her that lots of people are listening and watching. She’s been chosen by her people to speak for them. And it’s a big responsibility for a 10-year-old girl, but she’s rolling with the punches and she’s absorbing it all very well.”

Chris Kulak, in red, with his daughters in front of Kamsack Comprehensive School after the Monday march.(Submitted by Eunice Ketchemonia-Cote)

The show of affection and pride for Isabella and ribbon skirts continues online.

Chris said the social media movement has been empowering and inspiring to Isabella and his other six daughters.

“All these people reaching out from all these different bands and areas of the world, just shows her how many aunties and sisters, kokums, she has all around the world that literally feel her pain, in terms of the shaming, and definitely share her pride in the garment,” said Chris.

“So she’s learned a lot and she’s learned that she has a great nation behind her.”

Isabella Kulak sits among ribbon skirts.(Travis Pelly/Facebook)

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